Last month The New Yorker published a story detailing years of claimed sexual harassment and misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, it seems that every day features new allegations of similarly inappropriate behavior by public figures, from actors, to authors, to public radio executives. It is unclear whether this is a long- or short-term trend. It is, however, an opportune time for employers to review their own policies and procedures in place to prevent and respond to claims of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment policies should be clear and unambiguous as to what is not appropriate for the workplace. They should prohibit unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Policies should also make it clear that submission to such conduct must not be an implicit or explicit condition of employment, that response to such conduct will not serve as a basis for continued employment, and that such conduct will not be permitted to interfere with an employee’s work. In sum, the goal of any policy should be to clearly prohibit both specific harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.

An effective policy must go beyond prohibiting demands for sexual favors or inappropriate physical touching at work. Actions such as sexually-oriented “jokes” or “teasing” should not be permitted in the workplace. Offensive flirtations, repeated verbal abuse of a sexual nature, degrading comments about appearance, and the display of sexually suggestive or explicit materials must also be clearly banned. Employers should also clearly state that subtle pressure for sexual activity, physical contact or blocking of movement are also inappropriate.

These prohibitions, however, do not mean employees cannot have friendly interactions. Indeed, we recommend including a caveat that the policy does not consider things like occasional socially acceptable compliments or consensual social relationships as harassment. The stated goal of the policy should be to eliminate unwelcomed, intimidating, hostile, or offensive behavior. It should also be noted that the policy applies to and protects employees of all genders.

As important as a strong anti-sexual harassment policy is, there must also be a complete procedure for enforcing it. This procedure should have at least two reporting mechanisms. The first should be what would be considered the “normal” reporting mechanism, an employee, position or department designated to receive complaints of harassment and investigate. There also needs to be a secondary reporting mechanism for when normal person is either the subject of the complaint or in a position where investigation may be too difficult. For example, if the normal investigator is the head of HR and the accused is her second-in-command, then the secondary reporting mechanism would be best to use. The goal is for an impartial, objective investigation to occur – not one that is just impartial, but also one that is properly perceived as impartial too.

The complaint procedure should also guarantee as much confidentiality as possible. Victims, witnesses, and those who report harassment should be assured their information will be kept as confidential as possible while still conducting a thorough investigation. They should also know that non-frivolous complaints will not result in discipline. So, if they report behavior in a good-faith belief that it violates the sexual harassment policy there will be no negative consequences even if the investigation cannot substantiate the claim. In contrast, complaints made in bad faith, to retaliate or harass, or to otherwise abuse the system should not be tolerated.

Every investigation into a complaint or possible situation of harassment must be thorough, objective, and unbiased. Investigators must seek out and interview witnesses. They should make it clear that neither the complainant nor the accused should have any inappropriate contact with the witnesses during the investigation. Investigators should also seek any documentation, video surveillance, or other tangible evidence of the alleged events available to them. All reasonable steps should be pursued to try to get as clear of a picture as possible as to what truly happened.

Lastly, the policy should clearly define the consequences of such unacceptable behavior. Recommended action for substantiated violations can range from a simple written warning all the way up to and including termination – whatever is necessary to stop the behavior and ensure it is not repeated and the victim (and others) are not at further risk. It should also be made clear that while discipline for violations of the policy may be progressive, the employer reserves the right to implement whatever punishment it deems appropriate, including termination.

Employers know that sexual harassment is a serious issue and should not be tolerated in any workplace. Beyond the civil liability it may bring, it makes a workplace undesirable and saps employee morale. It can hurt a company’s brand, reputation and standing in the business community. This general outline as to how such policies and procedures should work is a start, but smart employers will reach out to counsel to review and update their policies and procedures and make sure they are never the subject of any similar negative headline news articles.

 

 

Last month, the Trump Administration announced plans to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. This change in policy is sure to have a significant impact on employers.

First, a little background on DACA. Beginning in the 1990s, illegal immigration from Central and South America changed. Illegal immigrants used to consist of predominantly working-age men who crossed the border to go to work, then returned at the end of the day. This changed when more and more families crossed illegally to settle permanently in hopes of finding a better life here in the United States. This change meant that millions of children who grew up here but were brought here illegally were vulnerable to deportation due to a choice their parents made for them. It is very difficult to obtain legal status after coming here illegally. So, these millions of childhood arrivals could potentially be forced to return to a country of which they have no recollection without some sort of protection.

In response, President Obama authorized DACA to provide that protection. Immigrants who came to the U.S. before 2007, who were under 15 years old at the time they came and were younger than 31 in 2012 were permitted to apply for DACA protection. To receive protection from deportation, they had to have a nearly spotless criminal record and either be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or equivalent. DACA’s protection lasted two years, but could be renewed. In total, roughly 800,000 out of an estimated 1.3 million immigrants have obtained DACA protection. Part of this protection included authorization to work.

With the ending of DACA, employers will bear some of the cost of abiding by new regulations (or lack thereof). Many of the largest employers in the country have hired the so-called Dreamers – individuals working and living under DACA’s protections. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, claims they have 250 employed at the tech giant. It is estimated that 91% of Dreamers are employed. So, with DACA gone, roughly 720,000 employees will become ineligible to remain employed overnight. The cost of replacing these employers is staggering. One think tank estimates it will cost employers $6.3 billion in turnover costs.

Fortunately for employers, the Trump administration announced it will delay ending DACA by six months. It is possible that during that time Congress will enact a law affording the same or similar protections allowing those same individuals to remain and stay employed. Therefore, employers do not need to start terminating their Dreamers right away. However, now is the time to create an action plan so that you are prepared if Congress is unable to reach and enact a solution. Employee turnover is costly and disruptive; abrupt and significant turnover is even more so. Smart employers will be prepared.

On Tuesday, April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the first Federal Appellate Court to hold that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  While some states have already enacted laws protecting against that type of discrimination, and many employers have added such protections into company equal employment opportunity policies, this marks the first time sexual orientation has been deemed protected at this level under the federal Civil Rights Act. Continue Reading What Does The Landmark Ruling Declaring Sexual Orientation Discrimination Illegal Under Title VII Really Mean?

Last Fall’s election, where so much was said about hacked emails, should serve as a reminder to employers that cyber security is of the utmost important.  Cyber crime continues to rise across the globe.  In some European countries it even outpaces traditional crime.  A single data breach can cost a company millions of dollars in lost revenue, fines, and corrective action, not to mention the damages to its reputation and brand loyalty.  So what are the biggest cyber threats and how can businesses best defend against them? Continue Reading Cyber Security & Employees

Franchise agreements typically make clear that a franchisee is a separate entity from the franchisor and that the franchisor has no liability as an employer of anyone the franchisee hires and employs.  Indeed, traditionally franchisors have not been routinely deemed joint or co-employers with their franchisees.  This is because the franchisor usually does not control hiring, firing, wages, breaks, and other day-to-day operations of the franchisee to the extent necessary to create an agency relationship between a franchisee’s employee and the franchisor.  A recent case decided by a federal court in California, however, might put that traditional thinking and legal relationship in doubt. Continue Reading Could A Franchisor Be Liable For A Franchisee’s Employment Decisions?

Now more than ever employers must have a clear and concise policy regarding work email accounts.  While it is commonly understood that an employee’s work email is property of the employer and subject to search at any time, it is important to inform employees of this.  A recent case, Hoofnagle v. Smyth-Wythe Airport Commission out of the Western District of Virginia, demonstrates the importance of a clear policy on email accounts.

Hoofnagel was the manager of a small, local airport who was fired for his use of an email account he used both personally and for business to write an impassioned and volatile email to U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.  The manager’s email came in the wake of the Newtown school shooting tragedy and vehemently defended gun rights.  The airport did not have its own email system, or a written policy addressing the use of email and accompanying expectations.  The manager created the email account when he started there and the airport published the address as an official point of contact.  Further complicating the matter, the manager signed the email with his name and position.  Shortly thereafter, the airport commission voted to terminate the manager and he filed suit.  After the airport terminated the manager, it began going through his emails to check for airport business. Continue Reading The Importance of a Proper Email Policy

Recent laws in North Carolina and Mississippi and the subsequent backlash are all over the news.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ogberfell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal across the country is not even a year old.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals very recently rule in favor of the right of transgender high school students to use bathrooms for the gender with which they associate.  LGBTQ rights are at the forefront like never before.  Employment discrimination is no exception.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has recently filed two separate suits in Pennsylvania and Maryland district courts challenging the long-held belief that Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Continue Reading Does Title VII Protect Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination? The Answer May Be Changing